Christine Morgan, CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, on how businsses can support mental wellbeing now and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
You’ve talked about the stigma of mental health at a personal level and on a structural level. Given that we’re all experiencing the same event at the same time – albeit in different ways – is this an opportunity to try to lessen that stigma?
Absolutely. I wonder whether the pandemic, on the back of the bushfires, has enabled us to give a lot more legitimacy to the fact that our mental health is an integral part of who we are as human beings; that it can be as impacted by environmental and other factors as our physical health. The whole destigmatisation – or flip it to be the normalisation of mental health – can be accelerated through the conversations and experiences that we’re having around COVID-19.
How well positioned do you think companies in this country were to deal with the mental health impacts of this crisis on employees?
We were unprepared for a pandemic that affects every single Australian. When a bushfire happens, it affects a finite set of people. This is uncharted territory so I think it’s unrealistic to expect that any business could have been well prepared for what has happened. But I’ve been astounded by how readily workplaces have understood the challenges for their employees in having to work from home and how they’re looking to address some of those challenges.
If a company is doing a good job of supporting the mental wellbeing of its employees right now, what does that look like?
First, the company has been prepared to say, “Our employees are feeling anxious, concerned and disrupted and we need to address how they’re coping before we can put our expectations around productivity and output on them.” Second, there’s more active conversation and engagement. It’s more exhausting to work with people who are physically distanced because we don’t realise how much incidental communication happens in the workplace. So now we need to contact somebody and ask, “How are you going?” You’re actually starting to engage in a conversation each time you interact with that person, which puts a real human element into all our business transactions.
What do you think leaders need to do beyond the COVID-19 crisis?
If we can take that validation of human feeling and commitment to actually engaging with somebody as a person who has their own stresses and strains, not just as a fellow worker, then we can bring about a fundamental shift into workplaces, which would be to everybody’s benefit. It might humanise workplaces in a way that perhaps wasn’t there pre-COVID-19.
What are the consequences for employers who don’t do that?
I’d love to see a study on the impact on productivity when a business humanises interactions with employees. The more we look after our mental health and wellbeing, the more productive and creative we are.
The “R” word – recession – has been kicking around for a while now. With COVID-19, it seems unavoidable and that brings a great deal of uncertainty for people. What does this mean for leaders?
When people see a recession coming, they can feel very nervous about losing their jobs. And so they start thinking, “How can I, at whatever cost, keep my job?” If leaders allow that to happen, it’ll be to the detriment of all of us because that’s really stepping back into practices that don’t contribute to a healthy or fully productive workplace. In a recession, we want our businesses to be as efficient and effective as they can be. We want them to be innovative, agile and able to respond because in times of recession we need to find new ways. If employers look at it from that perspective and recognise that agility and productivity come from a workforce that is mentally and physically well, it will pay off in terms of producing businesses that may be more resilient in coming through a recession.